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UNLV debate team has eye on national championship

Updated February 2, 2018 - 10:55 pm

Two weeks before classes commenced at his new high school, Matthew Gomez found himself in the vice principal’s office.

He had a problem. His course schedule lined up pretty perfectly, except for seventh period. Only two choices remained, according to the man behind the desk: weight training, or debate.

“And the rest is kind of history for me,” Gomez said.

Gomez, a senior political science major at UNLV, is a member of the university’s 11-year-old debate squad. The team is looking to make history this year.

The squad is ranked No. 5 in the nation in varsity points, behind the likes of the University of Kansas and Wake Forest University — schools that have had debate programs for decades, not just a single decade.

“Our goal is to win the national championship,” said Jake Thompson, director of the Sanford I. Berman Debate Forum. “We have as good a chance as any other school in the country of winning it in this year.”

Thompson, who started the program in 2007, said the team has built a national reputation through the natural talent of the debaters, a strong work ethic and a culture that Thompson has created over the past 11 years.

“It’s been a steady rise in national rankings and overall team competitiveness,” he said.

‘A full-time job’

On Wednesday night, in a room on the third floor of the Classroom Building Complex at UNLV, Gomez and teammate Jeffrey Horn spent nearly three hours preparing for the final tournament of the regular season, which begins Saturday at the University of Texas, Austin.

The duo spends 40 hours a week on their craft.

“You can be naturally talented but get beaten by someone who outworks you,” Thompson said. “For Matthew and Jeff, debate is a full-time job.”

Gomez and Horn are the most successful of UNLV’s nine two-person teams, having won won 62 of the 81 debates they’ve had in eight tournaments this season.

In college public policy debates, two teams of two go head-to-head arguing both for and against a topic. The National Debate Tournament chose national health insurance for the topic at every competition this the season.

Wednesday night, Horn, a junior economics major, was up first for a practice round. Speaking at about 300 words-per-minute — about the speed of an auctioneer — Horn made several arguments against national health insurance. Among them, Horn said it would cause a recession-causing collapse in the stock market.

“It’s a timed game, essentially,” Thompson said. “The more arguments that you make, the higher your likelihood of winning — it’s like deploying soldiers on the field.”

Tripping over the occasional “um” or “ah” isn’t as important as the number of or quality of the evidence-based arguments made.

A “very serious” debater will do about one master’s thesis worth of research every year, Thompson said. When it was his turn to speak, Gomez referenced a nearly 600-page document. He’s completed about 100 pages of original research this season, but the document has grown over time.

“There’s a lot of intricacies and nuance to the resolution that make the debates exciting for the whole year,” Gomez said. “I’m in charge when we have to be affirmative, so I head all of the research for our team on that. Jeffrey is in charge of negative research.”

The digital age has made the massive amounts of research a little easier to carry around, Thompson said.

“When we used to debate on pieces of paper, we carried them all around with us in Rubbermaid tubs,” he said. “Each team would haul around four of those full of paper. Each one of them weighed under 50 pounds because we had to carry them onto planes with us.”

Building a dynasty

The competition in Austin is the last tournament before Gomez and Horn head to the National Debate Tournament at the University of Kansas in March. The pair may even amp up their usual 40-hour “debate” work week to 50 or more hours.

Gomez is even prepared to miss — for the third time — his family’s vacation to Hawaii.

“We’re going all out,” Horn, a graduate of Green Valley High School, said.

The National Debate Tournament accepts 78 individual teams from around the country, but only those ranked in the top 16 receive an invitation. Most of the remaining 62 teams qualify through one of eight district tournaments. Thompson hopes another UNLV team — Reece Aguilar and Roman Kezios — will make the national tournament through that route.

However, even if Gomez and Horn fail to perform at their usual level this weekend, Thompson said, they’ll likely be ranked among the top five in the country.

“The most conservative estimate is that we’re 10th,” Thompson said. “That’s a worst-case scenario.”

While Thompson wants to see the team to the national championships, it’s not the ultimate end point.

“It will be one of the greatest moments of my life if it happens,” Thompson said. “But at the same time, I can see a bright future where there are a lot more moments just like that. My goal is to create a dynasty where we win multiple national championships.”

Contact Natalie Bruzda at nbruzda@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3897. Follow @NatalieBruzda on Twitter.

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